Painting a Keepsake Portrait: Olive Grace

When to Use Photographs

Discussion abounds among portrait painters about the good-vs-bad points of painting from a photograph, as opposed to painting from a live model.

Painting from life brings clarity to just how soft the transitions within the face are, especially in the seamless contours of a baby’s face. However, even the folds of the wrinkles of a 95-year-old are soft. It clarifies the softness of the extreme edges, showing how they round into the light. However, painting from a photograph clarifies the absolute boundaries of eyes, ears, nose, hair, in a forever-fixed position. This brings resolution to many internal disputes the artist faces the moment she begins fixing lines on a piece of paper.

The problems with painting from life are in ever-changing lines and movements, left-right, up-down, and not having a head full enough of every angle and curve of a roundly 3-dimensional object. The problems with a photograph are many–distortions in the planes, misreading the data, not understanding the 3-dimensionality at any point along the way, interpreting light and shadows, and more.

Most veteran artists maneuver both paths.

So, when I received a request to paint a life-like portrait of a woman’s 50-year dead grandmother when she was a young child, I was not alarmed. I’ve had a lot of experience over many years in ‘reading’ photographs when I worked ten years as artist in a photographic studio enhancing portraits. So I had a wide acquaintance with old photographs and enhancing them, making the project only marginally intimidating. My emphasis with anything photographic is in making subjects jump off the page to greet you. And one fact alone ends the portrait painting discussion–if the subject is not alive, you don’t have any option other than using a photograph. My client wanted her own picture of her beloved grandmother, as another sibling owned the original one, because she had seen my work, and had concluded she would prefer a work of art rather than merely a photograph.

She lives in another state. She had visited my studio several times, however, visiting someone in the area and acquired one of my gel pen paintings. She had the vision for a piece of fine art, as well as a likeness.

So, of course she wanted the feel and sense of an old photograph. Once our back and forth was firmed up, I received an 8 x 10 black and white with all the colors described to me verbally.

We discussed parameters, found samples and examples of the exact colors desired. Her color sense was exacting and precise, and her willingness to respect and work with me as artist was an artist’s dream. She wanted a certain finished size, so I had to work backwards in designing the figure in the space, allowing the amount of space for painting in what had been the original oval mat, the pattern on it, the actual matting, and the frame width. Every aspect of frame, mat, background colors, dress color, hair, eye, complexion color were described. We decided on watercolor paint as the medium to more accurately and sensitively express an old photograph. That meant bringing back all of the lost integrity of the image. If you have ever seen chalked-in old photographs, you probably know what I mean about so much detail having been lost.

She sent me an 8 x 10 image of the original photograph, and my work began in earnest. I first drew many sketches of her on watercolor paper tinted yellow, the color of the dress. I drew her and re-drew her multiple times. In the end, I was not happy with the effect of the tinted paper, so I scrapped that version and began what would be the final on a 300# Arches cold press piece of watercolor paper, having acquired good practice in nearly memorizing her features one by one in every line variation. By this point, I had a decent hand-done oval. My drawing was nearing the ready phase.

Even then, I had to check and correct tiny little lines multiple times, moving them a hair up or down, a hair right or left. It was tedious work. Don’t ever commission someone who thinks their first line is final. However, extreme caution must be used in erasure, as well, as using the wrong eraser or overworking erasing can ruin a painting in short order, abrading even expensive 300# watercolor paper especially designed for watercolor abuse.

My biggest struggles, besides the hand-done oval, came in the colors, as the copy I had was black and white, and I had to dream up color mixes based on names of colors. I searched the web a lot for examples of ‘chestnut’ hair, and other descriptions. However, it was not my ignorance, but my knowledge that lead me astray. Knowing there is a lot of blue in a shadow color (for which I substitute green added to red to get the perfect complementary), I ended up with more shadow versions of the colors in her face than I needed. Then my client shared a painting she had bought that reminded her of someone in their family, sent me a picture of it, and I freshened up the facial colors using those. Don’t trust someone to do a watercolor portrait who says you can’t tinker with watercolors, either. You just have to know how.

A friend at one point made crucial comments that lead to change and downplaying some detail to greater effect.

At this point, the client preferred to be surprised, so the finished product was taken for its framing, a suitable was picked, along with a mat that made the unit hang together in a way that seemed inevitable, as if it had always existed. The prince of all boxes was ordered at a princely price, and the work was sent off in fear and trembling through my favorite service who picks it up at my studio. Then I followed it on pins and needles until it was received.

Finally the longed-for response arrived. “I can’t begin to tell you how ‘over-the-moon’ I am with my grandmother’s portrait!” was the first line in my thank-you letter from my client. Imagine my joy when she told me that the grandmother that was always in her heart was now in her home, too. And the very best thing a portrait artist can ever hope to hear, “You nailed it, girlfriend!”

Sigh. Now I can proceed to my next project. But first, this just came in from my client, “Oh, yes, tell Joanna she has my grandmother’s eyes down perfect. They’re the same as I remember!”

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I wrote this article on request for a restorer working for the University of Delaware creating a public forum for artists to post their questions about the chemical components of art materials and the effects they have on their painting practices. She is now working with such a forum, indispensable to us painters, saving thousands of hours of research. AMIEN was a symposium which disbanded and left a vacuum until now. MITRA,

Ever since I turned professional (part of some 40+ years of painting), I have upgraded my techniques and materials. When I send my art students to an art store for supplies, I tell them, “It’s a jungle out there.” Without exception, major questions arise on what to buy in every single arena, whether paints, surfaces to paint on, brushes, mediums, or varnishes.

These trips force questions to the surface which I am not prepared to answer, and not from lack of trying. These choices are not fun ones; they are not cosmetic at all. Once I sold my first $3000 portrait I upgraded my materials and painted it on a Belgian linen canvas. (It had to be restored.) I joined the Portrait Society of America, attend their conference annually, and learned from buying at their kiosk that most of what was sold at major art dealers was craft product, not designed for the serious artist, but for the throwaway market that attracted customers who wouldn’t find them in the 20 years they stayed a-float to complain. As I continued to find expert resources I drained every bit of information I could contain from them and upgraded further, swimming through masses of conflicting data and input, through purchases of shoddy to great materials, and never knowing which was which. I have one book I refer to above all others for expert advice. The old books, like Meyers, have been superseded and outdated by current product and understanding.

My knowledge grid is now one that has wildly divergent arrows which would take up a side wall.

One of my biggest downers as a professional artist was finding out how fugitive my favorite color, alizarin crimson is, and how careful an artist had to be about mixing what I consider all the “pretty” colors.

Had I known oil painting harbored such numerous pitfalls witnessed by the unseen cloud of restorations through the centuries, and was rife with chemical and logical incompatibilities, I might not have braved entry into oil painting at all.

That said, I am a water-colorist as well, which also presents multiple technical problems, but to my mind, not so many.

Here is a recent conversation for you:

Me: I didn’t realize zinc came in acrylic gesso.
Expert: OH WAIT I MISSPOKE MYSELF….I have not had caffeine yet. SO SORRY.
Me: So I’m really at a standstill.
Expert: Zinc in acrylic is FINE, as far as we know.
Me: It just shouldn’t be in oil gesso, or ‘real’ gesso.
Expert: Right.
Me (after further research): But every manufacturer puts this in their gesso.
Expert: Well, yes. It happened once lead, the sturdiest white, was taken off of the market.
Me: So none of my paintings are going to last.
Expert: Unless you affix it to a rigid support… Unless you prime with lead with no zinc in it… Unless you find the one man in the U.S. that does this work… But then you must find the right rigid support, like tin or aluminum or copper or wood panel or hardboard panel.
Me (after researching each one of these): Each one of these has its own problems. And in the end, you can’t get large surfaces ready made anywhere. (Meanwhile, the price of my portraits had just tripled).
Expert: Well, some manufacturers teach you how to attach linen canvas to different surfaces.
Me: So now I’m into time-consuming prep work, expensive courses, and more time. My schedule already stinks, it’s so full. When can I paint?
Expert: Yes. It’s not so hard, once you’re into it.
Me: So, what if I return to fake gesso, acrylic gesso?
Expert: The main concern with acrylic grounds is quality. There can be tons of surfactants and other additives, especially if the company is outsourcing in China.
Me: Dang. One should marry a materials expert.

Take one of the good-guy companies in an area that is fraught with disaster, varnishing, and look at their disclaimer.
“Disclaimer: The above information is based on research and testing done by X Artists Colors, and is provided as a basis for understanding the potential uses in established oil painting and printmaking techniques using the products mentioned. X Artists Colors cannot be sure the product will be right for you. Therefore, we urge product users to carefully read the label, instructions and product information for each product and to test each application to ensure all individual project requirements are met – particularly when developing one’s own technique. While we believe the above information is accurate, WE MAKE NO EXPRESS OR IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY OR FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, AND WE SHALL IN NO EVENT BE LIABLE FOR ANY DAMAGES (INDIRECT, CONSEQUENTIAL OR OTHERWISE) THAT MAY OCCUR AS A RESULT OF A PRODUCT APPLICATION.”

Am I the only artist into whose heart that strikes terror? No.
Expert #1: If the satin varnish has matting agents this will be a problem and could result in a “frosted glass” effect (re-varnishing on top of glossy with a mat varnish).
Expert #2: Yes, actually Expert #1 is right about that. Conservators are able to get away with applying satin (higher molecular weight varnishes) over your average more glossy varnishes (lower molecular weight varnishes) because we make our own varnishes from scratch….There is a dire need to survey what is in all of these proprietary varnishes.
Expert #3: It is zinc in oil that is a problem.

Many of us run right along in total ignorance where angels fear to enter, assuming the seller has OUR INTERESTS AT HEART. My gosh, I remember first learning in my Old Master’s watercolor training in Germany that ox gall, which

dissolves fat in water to prevent oily resists in watercolor, was deadly poisonous. To date, I have never even seen a skull and crossbones on a bottle. Do paints containing cadmium have label warnings? We assume happily the truth of one of the most popular American phrases of the century, “It’s gonna be all right.” And this happens in what the general public would consider more important than how long their painting will last.

“Really?” With luck, perhaps, maybe…. but then, probably not. Who can we trust? Why will manufacturers not tell us what is in their products? Why are so many processes hidden in multiple, indiscernible layers? Why must the consumer roll back middleman after middleman and waste time when a manufacturer could have simply disclosed the materials he used. Why does one of the most reputable sellers going tell a customer, “In all the years I’ve worked here, no one has ever asked that question”? about the exact components in primed canvases and says he’ll take it further after their first hundred or so inquiries. Gee, thanks.

The industry has turned craft instead of artist. The industry does not have long-term vision. The industry is not worried about liability. The industry profits on the artist while BYPASSING THE ARTIST’S NEED TO KNOW AND MAKE GOOD, DISCERNING DECISIONS.

Having seen all of this without a doubt, I would like to proclaim an Artist’s Manifesto:

* We Artists need an independently run forum where we can ask questions regarding materials and techniques.
* We Artists need a platform in which to interact with conservators, scientists, and industry representatives.
* We Artists need help navigating the ever-growing world of commercially available art materials.
* We Artists need to be heard and listened to in every area of art product manufacturing and design.
* We Artists need to KNOW what we’re dealing with.

To do so, we need to be able to ask questions of those with the knowledge base we are crying for, and which we could only navigate if we gave up our own call to paint. Happily that day is here.

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REDHEADS, My Books Celebrate the 2%

November celebrates a lot of things, elections, Veterans, the pilgrims’ day of thanks (unless history has been dumped), but I just discovered that November’s National Love Your Red Hair Day celebrates redheads. That’s right, everyone with red hair gets good press on the 5th of November, a custom, I am told, started by two redheaded sisters.

Why as an ash blonde would I want to enter in? Why, because they make up 13% of Scots in Scotland, Mary Queen of Scots being a famous Scottish redhead and 10% of folks in Ireland, because I write books, and because the heroes and heroines in my novels often have Scottish or Irish descendants. Nothing says Scottish like red hair and freckles. Another reason is that they won’t go grey, and hence, stay eternally young, the way a good hero or heroine must to entertain centuries of readers. Give my heroine some green or blue eyes and you have a real rarity, because even among redheads, the common eye color is brown. Bees are attracted to them, I have just learned, so maybe I need to write a thriller with a redheaded victim.

Cover for New Release Coming Soon of Stone of Her Destiny

Cover for New Release Coming Soon of Stone of Her Destiny

That and because redheads are said to have increased sensitivity to pain, and you know for certain that an author is going to subject her characters to some pain. We fiction authors are something of sadists in that regard, because unless you squeeze the jar, you don’t know what’s in it. The same gene that produces red hair is linked to the gene connected to pain receptors, meaning they might require more anesthesia for intrusive medical procedures.

And in no small part would I pick a redhead because they don’t have the reputation of blondes as being flaky or “I dunno.” Their reputation is hotheaded, independent. So they make strong contenders for your attention as slightly quirky, an inherent difference which grooms them for adventure in your hemisphere.

Great authors have featured stand-out redheads through the ages. Take A. Conan Doyle in Sherlock Holmes, for example and his detective short story “The Redheaded League,” or Anne in Anne of Green Gables who is revisiting us now from yesteryear, or the Weasleys in the Harry Potter series. Then there’s “Little Orphan Annie” and Pippi Longstocking so popular in Germany that we watched when we lived an extended time there. There’s the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, not to mention Dorothy herself of Oz with her cute little braids. There’s Dana Sculley of X-files, one of my personal favorites and the fictional Madeleine of French extract, and I would be remiss not to mention my granddaughter’s current favorite fictional character, Ariel. Don’t forget our wonderful rag dolls, Raggedy Ann and Andy. Then there’s Faramir in Lord of the Rings, quite nice for a hero. In my adopted genre, Gothic romance, popular British novelist Hugh Seymour Walpole published thirty-six novels, including, Portrait of a Man with Red Hair. It is described as a macabre romance, a Gothic tale by a descendant of the author of The Castle of Otranto.

Not to mention that my aunt across the road was a redhead and, to break into brogue, ‘niver ye saw sich an independent female with firmly defined character parameters.’ My cousin the editorial writer has red hair and lots of his cousins, descendants of one of the Scottish clans which made up a huge portion of the population in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina, emigrating from the 1730’s on into the area. My own people are Scottish descendants as well ( and included many influential leaders in local and state government.

Having red hair makes one more likely to be left handed, statistics say, an evidence of a recessive gene showing up because recessive genes like to come in pairs. On average redheads only have 90,000 strands of hair while blonds have 140,000. However, since red hair comes thicker, their hair looks just as full.

Interesting my Christmas novelette features a dual redheaded pair in A Yuletide Folly Folly, Sinclair, who returns to her mansion and horse farm in the Pinehurst area for some intense intrigue with her geologist boyfriend and love interest, whose red hair leads him in a decidedly levelheaded direction. We hired two models who fulfilled the cover requirements for this. I’m amazed at the odds on having found them, since they are only 2-3% of the total population at large!
Now we have a redheaded heroine in my newest novel, Stone of Her Destiny, by the name of Kenna. I say it takes a redhead to manage her destiny between two worlds, Scotland and the Cape Fear region of North Carolina; with the old world of her ancestry and the modern new world she and her Scottish love must conquer to stay functional. Together they have the combined ancestry which will save the day. This novel is slated for publication before Christmas of this year. I just have a couple more love scenes to incorporate into it, scenes worthy of a redhead, I might add.

Sizzle, sizzle, and still safe.

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‘LITTLE MAN’: A Story of Love, Overcoming, and a Red Tractor

Some portrait commissions fall on me with no forewarning, like this one did, although it came from a former client and someone I knew very well and for whom I had done another portrait earlier of four siblings on one canvas.

This one, however, is about a young boy at the delightful age of 3 years old caught up in his bright red tractor. Now red tractors are truly classic, especially ones large enough to ride on. Or to fix on with real tools. I know my own connections to little boys contain episodes of fixing and unfixing the crib in which they stayed. Every night the gate would collapse, the screws fall out, and the crib door would be dangling in the morning. another-little-man-resized-web

So, the benefactor, or the godmother, of this little boy contacted me for the portrait of a charming little man, and the adventure began. The first sitting with introduction to him and his mother happened on a Saturday, as I recall, and I studied him as he shot all around my studio, a ball of energy. Children are not easy to capture in still shots; did I mention that? In any case, seeing your subject in person is vital, because as every artist of any experience at all knows, photographs can lie. Maybe a better way of saying that is that the truths of a photograph are all internal, and frequently not weighed against other objects, like adults, other small children, nightstands and chairs. Even trees can help in
sizing a person.

We discussed what Little Man would wear, what colors one saw in the tractor, and I was left with a pile of photographs to look at to wonder what angle played him and his personality up best. I remember we decided on going with this look because when he was alone, he was most himself, more than when he was with people; he submerged his personality into the internal process of what he worked on, looking out from there at the world of other people. We set up a schedule, made a contract, and figured out times for the follow-up visits. This work was to be captured on a 3′ x 4′ canvas, and I would add a frame to the basic order as my responsibility.

I started out drawing multiple sketches of his face, which I then sent for comments to the parties involved. We settled on sketches; I made adjustments and then began the grisaille, and the imprimatura. Then, the oil painting.

But let me introduce the godmother with her account of the events. Her Story:

“God’s perfect plan is awesome! Little did a 40-year-old professional and a 20-year-old guest at the North Carolina Correctional Center ever think they would form a life-long friendship and a bond that only God could forge. But they did!”

Nancy was an inmate at the NC Correctional Center for a youthful rebellion with drugs that she knew would destroy her. When the judge, a friend of the family, said he would recommend leniency, she refused and accepted both counts of the indictment which meant a felony on her record and many years in prison, because she knew it was the only way to save her life. On one of those years in spring she met Sarah, a member of a Christian mission group to the prisons who were conducting a Christian weekend for a select few of the inmates. Sarah was the sponsor for Nancy’s best friend at the institution. Months after the weekend, Nancy realized her friend was trying to scam Sarah by pretending not to get the package sent and then selling the extras that came, so she wrote Sarah and let her know the truth.


a precious moment in an oil portrait commission

After that, the relationship Sarah had with the friend ended but a new relationship was started with Nancy. Letters of remorse, truths of scripture, and hope through Jesus Christ was shared. Bibles and books were sent and there was always a visit every month in NC Women’s Correctional Center and later at a minimum security prison. Letters were written to the parole board and when Nancy came up for parole, Sarah was there with Nancy’s mother and aunt.

That long awaited day came when Nancy was released to her mother’s home under house confinement for a year. Nancy got a 2-year degree and was a model parolee and model worker. After several years, she married and wanted children, but after years of drug abuse in her youth and diabetes, her hope for children became an ‘it will happen if It is God’s will.’ Nancy was content with leaving it in His hands. A few years before her 40th birthday, she called Sarah who had been her mentor and friend throughout this ordeal and told her the good news. She was pregnant. little-man-at-home-resized-web

She had a healthy, but premature, baby boy. A miracle child! That child is now 5 years old. The portrait of ‘Little Man’ was made at three years old, commissioned by Sarah as a gift to Nancy to represent the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan in a life starting out as a failure, to a life completing God’s plan. Nancy is now completing her degree and going for a masters in her chosen field. She has been selected by her director as a future manager of the regional group in her field.

The visits and calls continue every month and every week, and Gi Gi has been added to Sarah’s name, great God mother. What a blessing!

“The painting is beautiful,” Gi Gi told me, “Nancy had a fit over it!”

And Nancy said about their portrait, “This is the oil painting that will soon grace our home. Now I will always have him with me, in everything I do, will see his sweet little face…. It’s wonderful! I am so amazed by the portrait. I cannot wait until next weekend!”

And so the completed portrait went home to live with Nancy, and I get reports of it from time to time from my dear friend Sarah, or Little Man’s Godmother, Gi-Gi. A portrait painter gets such wonderful connections through her portraits. I love my job.

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PARACHUTING: Into the Future, General Lee Museum

I just went with my group of DAR ladies to the Major William C. Lee Museum in Dunn. We are one of the patriotic groups, so the trip is a no-brainer. One of our Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) members set it up for us. Our President, Paula Hildebrand traveled from Wake Forest for this event. gloria-gulledge-general-lee-resized-web

We had the docent there schedule a tour for us. We were in the middle of it, and I was as excited as the first time I’d seen it. No, wait, that’s wrong. I was way MORE excited about it than I had ever been, military being my son’s and my husband’s interest, but not particularly mine.

As Gloria Gulledge went on about different memorabilia, like a huge old flag they have framed there, I was struck with the amount of first times, of invention, of tipping point moments that had occurred with this one point in history, through this one man. It was astounding. I would almost say he exploded into a moment of history as potently as had Churchill.

Don’t expect me to tell you all those things, because I can’t. You will just have to call and take the tour yourself, and it is more than worth it. It was at least as good as the one we attended through the LBJ house in Texas, and I would say it was way better. I promise you, they didn’t pay me to say this or advertise for their museum.

I can remember all the way back to its beginnings, when some classmates of mine and a colonel I knew from before my overseas trek started talking about doing this project in a fine Southern home in Dunn, NC. I didn’t give it much credence, not being quite as smart as I think I am. However, this project has grown. The exhibits have multiplied. The one-of-kind moments have, as well. Like the permanently lighted artwork of a major artist which takes you there to that time frame. The uniforms have grown, authentic ones used and discontinued–from WWI days to now–showcased in glass cases on three separate floors boasting a regular set of stairs and a servant’s set of stairs. It also house the Dunn Area Chamber of Commerce. They have a discontinued bicycle that they jumped from planes with in enemy lines, to get out of there once they’d landed. They have authentic guns and rifles used by every phase of military and foreign military. They have statues, old photographs, letters, furniture, stories, and more.

Follow Gloria from the red room to the blue room to the–you get the idea–all are full of story, dates, and times of the action, what lead up to the grand moments of history, and what sequels it has had. It even has tie-ins to things like the history of the development of 5-star generals. I just thought they had always been and ever would be, sort of like the doxology in a Sunday service.

William C. Lee in a miraculous moment started our governments’ parachuting unit. In no time, they had 50 men.That grew to 500, to 1000, to 8,000. Initially, he saw the Germans using it and was captured by it, implemented the idea once that was his assignment by using prototype circus exhibits in a story which sounds more like a total made-up fantasy fiction than like history. Don’t expect me to get my facts right or to repeat a tenth of it, because I can’t, but the docent, a teacher and history lover herself is immersed in this and has been for years, and makes the history of it all come alive right before your eyes.

Our President Paula, Left, Jane Tart, Treasurer, Right

Our President Paula, Left, Jane Tart, Treasurer, Right

I would actually say she lassos you and forces you into her time capsule and takes you back in time to the first moments, the moments of inception, the invention moments. You can probably surmise that would excite the imagination of an artist as I am.

In recent years I was asked to re-do the brochure the Commission has on its featured museum, which I did, with monumental help from Christian de la Mirand, a photographer who for a short time owned the Photography shop near me on Broad Street. The brochure is given out by the Dunn tourist agency,

Our collaboration on the brochure was a fun time, and reminded me of having collaborated on the graphic presentation of another 3-dimensional exhibit in Holland when I lived in Germany. It was a visual story, as well, on a little known phase of history–one of researching and documenting Bible distribution into closed countries, complete with sound in the story. I wish I had taken pictures of that!

And this experience was a one of a kind, as well, as the Cornelius Harnett Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution is slated to end its history at the end of this year. I’m so glad to have been a part of it for a few years before that.

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